Oscar Peterson Biographies

Music Reviews: Oscar Peterson

This is an annotated biography of Oscar Peterson which I presented for a university music assignment. Several different books which reference Oscar Petersen are looked at in this essay, and we start with the most important one, the auto-biography written by the man himself.

Peterson, Oscar, (2002). A Jazz Odyssey. The Life of Oscar Peterson. New York and London: Continuum by arrangement with Bayou Press Ltd.

This is a beautifully organized, stylistically consistent and well told autobiography, such as one would expect from the exemplary pianist and composer, Oscar Peterson.

The main periods of Oscar’s life are detailed, with tributes paid to all those teachers, jazz men, friends, family, promoters and record producers who helped Oscar on his way to fame.

His family life in his early years is given great weight, and one gets a real insight into what it was like to be raised in a West Indian family in Montreal, whose parents devoted so much of their limited energy and resources into ensuring that their children would become professional musicians.
Oscar speaks very warmly of teacher Paul de Marky, and honours him in his half-page chapter (p.314 entitled “The Glenn Gould Prize’ 1 This is the smallest chapter in the book, which gives an indication of Oscar’s modest approach to the major successes of his life.

Lees, Gene, 1988 and 200 revised edition. Oscar Peterson, The Will To Swing. New York: Cooper Square Press.

This is written by an ex-editor of Downbeat Magazine. His literary interest is apparent in the many criticisms which he include from a wide range of sources. This makes the book very interesting reading, especially in that it conveys a sense of the ridicule and difficulties such famous men as Oscar have to endure from their competitors and critics:

“Tearing Down Oscar” is the title of Chapter 12 (p.165).

Chapter titles “Ray and Herb” (p. 101) and “Ray and Ed” (p. 135) are on a happier note. These give insights into the workings of the fabulous trio groupings of Oscar’s fame.

Lees is very much the overt music critic: At times, while being informative, one tires of his pedantic approach, especially when he tries to play detective in sorting out “the real story”. And especially when he is so obviously on the wrong track. (2) Overlooking this flaw, the book is still a very worthwhile read for all those fans of Oscar Peterson.

3) Feather, Leonard/Gitler, Ira, 1999. The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.

The history of Oscar’s successes with relevant dates are given in very succinct form in this book, which is written by two very famous music critics.

All the famous jazz-men of the trios: Ray Brown (bass), Herb Ellis (guitar) and Ed Thigpen (drums) are honoured as part of Oscar’s team, with the time-frames detailed of their work with the group., Norman Granz, the producer, and the main recording sessions are given.

Leonard Feather’s great knowledge of the jazz of the period, and his devotion to the art of music-critique is evident in this write-up.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Sadie, Stanley, editors. 1986. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, (4 volumes), London. Vol. Three, p. 544.
I did wonder whether I would find Oscar in this dictionary, because it is actually an American production: Oscar was Canadian by birth. I was encouraged to find a fairly good account given, however, many of his outstanding achievements and awards have been ignored.
His solo performances and composing skills are mentioned, as well as the famous trio performances. However, while this section mentioned his “extraordinary technique”, (p.544), it was disappointing to see in the “Piano Music” section (pp. 562-565) that Oscar does not get a mention, when Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, “and especially Art Tatum”, are regarded as producing pieces of “coruscating virtuosity”. (4)

Carr, Ian; Fairweather, Digby; Priestley, Brian. 1988. Jazz, The Essential Companion. Paladin, Grafton, London. (pp. 390-391)
These guys obviously love Oscar Peterson: There are not too many photos in this book, but Oscar Peterson gets one which covers almost a whole page.This photo accompanies a good commentary on Oscar’s work and his early influences, including those of Nat King Cole and Art Tatum.
Oscar’s incredible technique, and his exceptional skill as an accompanist, especially in the swing mode, are high-lighted.
The account ends with the recognition of Oscar’s versatility in accompanying everyone “from Louis Armstrong to Lester Young”. (5)


Oscar Peterson, 2002, A Jazz Odyssey, The Life of Oscar Peterson. New York and 3ondon: Continuum Press, 0. 314: Oscar was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize in 1993, one of many awards and Doctorates he received over the years. Oscar Peterson and Glenn Gould, a classical pianist, are the two most revered musicians in Canada’s history.
Gene Lees, 1988 and 2000 revised edition. Oscar Peterson, The Will To Swing, New York, Cooper Press, p.64: “There are some serious problems with the story…….” , says Gene Lees. Lees simply doesn’t seem able to accept that Norman Granz did not recognize Oscar live on radio. He knew the ‘terrible’ boogie-woogie recordings Oscar had done previously. The style played over radio the night that Norman Granz heard it in the taxi, was simply not consistent with the image Granz had formed of Oscar and his capabilities.
Hitchcock/Sadie: The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, 1986. London. Perhaps this is because many awards which Oscar received were Canadian: also, awards such as The Glen Gould Award came after, after this Dictionary was written. However, by 1986, Oscar really had made a name for himself, and was already one of the most recorded artists in Canada. Emphasis and proper accreitation does seem to be reserved to the tur-bue American in these volumes.
Ibid, p.544
Carr, Fairweather, Priestley: 198. Jazz, The Essential Companion, Paladin, Grafton, London, p.390.


Carr, Ian, Fairweather, Digby, Piestley, Brian, 1988. Jazz, The Essential Companion. Paladin Grafton, London.

Feather, Leonard/Gitler, Ira, 1999. The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Jazz. Naew York, Oxford Press.

Hitchcock, Sadie, 1986. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. London.

Lees, Gene, 1988 and 2000 revised edition. Oscar Peterson, The Will To Swing. New York, Cooper Square Press.

Peterson, Oscar, 2002. A Jazz Odyssey, The Life Of Oscar Peterson. New York and London: Continuum Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s